Tracking down the 9/11 working dogs

When veterinarian Cynthia Otto was in Manhattan following the 9/11 attacks helping search and rescue dogs, she heard rumors about the possible impact on the dogs’ long-term health.

Cynthia Otto (centre) cared for search and rescue dogs during their work at the site of the 9/11 disaster, later studying the impact of their service on their health. (Image: Courtesy of Cynthia Otto)

“I was at Ground Zero and I heard people making comments like, ‘Did you hear that half of the dogs that responded to the Oklahoma City bombing died of X, Y, or Z? ‘ Or they were saying the dogs that responded to 9/11 were dead,” she recalls. “It was really disconcerting.”

It also underscored the importance of collecting rigorous data on the health of dogs deployed to disaster sites. An initiative that was launched in the weeks following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 did just that, and this week, 19 years later, the findings of Otto and his colleagues are reassuring. Dogs that participated in search and rescue efforts after 9/11 lived on average a similar length of time as a control group of search and rescue dogs and survived the average lifespan for their breed. There was also no discernible difference in the dogs’ cause of death.

“Honestly, it wasn’t what we expected; it’s surprising and wonderful,” says Otto, director of the School of Veterinary Medicine’s dog work center, who shared the results in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Although post-mortem results showed that dogs deployed after the 9/11 attacks had more particles in their lungs when they died, it appears that this exposure did not cause serious problems for the animals in life. The most common cause of death was age-related conditions, such as arthritis and cancer, as in the control group.

During and immediately after the 9/11 response, Otto and his colleagues contacted dog handlers to recruit search and rescue dogs into a longitudinal study that would track their health, longevity, and cause of death. They recruited 95 dogs who had worked at the World Trade Center, Fresh Kills Landfill or Pentagon disaster sites. As a control group, they also included in the study 55 search and rescue dogs that had not been deployed on 9/11.

Older golden retriever with a FEMA vest lying on the floor at his owner's feet

Brittany, introduced in 2012 with her handler Denise Corliss at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center’s opening ceremony, was the longest-lived dog to respond to the 9/11 attacks. The golden retriever died in 2016, aged 16. (Photo: Steve Minicola)

As part of their involvement, the dogs underwent annual medical checkups, including chest X-rays and blood tests. When the dogs died, the researchers paid the dog handlers to have veterinarians take samples of various organ tissues and send them to Michigan State University for analysis. Forty-four of the 9/11 dogs and 19 of the control group dogs underwent autopsies. For most of the other dogs in the study, the research team obtained information about the cause of death from medical records or from the handlers themselves.

While the team expected to see respiratory problems in the exposed dogs — conditions that were reported by human first responders on 9/11 — they didn’t.

“We had anticipated that dogs would be the canary in the coal mine for human first responders, because dogs age faster than humans and had no protective gear during the response,” says Otto. “But we didn’t see much of concern.”

In fact, the median age at death of the 9/11 dogs was about the same as the control group: 12.8 versus 12.7 years. The most common cause of death in deployed dogs was degenerative causes – usually euthanasia due to severe arthritis – followed closely by cancer, although the risk of cancer is about the same as in dogs in the a group of witnesses.

Otto and his colleagues have ideas as to why foreign particles found in some of the dog’s lungs have not translated to poor health, although they stress that this is speculation, not yet based on Datas.

“For lung effects, it’s a bit easier to explain because dogs have a very good filtering system,” says Otto. “Their lungs are different – they don’t have asthma, for example – so there seems to be something in their lungs that is more tolerant than in humans.”

She notes that working dogs tend to be extremely physically fit compared to companion dogs, which perhaps counteracts the adverse health effects of deployment conditions. But working dog handlers and trainers can always do more to focus on fitness and conditioning, especially because it could slow the progression of arthritis, a condition that has played a role in the death of many dogs in the study.

Cynthia Otto with a black lab balanced on a rubber ball

At the Working Dog Center, Otto puts Casey, a black Labrador, to work by training to improve his strength, balance, and physical fitness. Otto and his colleagues believe that such exercises can extend the healthy lifespan of working dogs. (Photo: Eric Sucar)

“We know that when people stop moving, they gain weight and that puts them at higher risk for arthritis, and arthritis makes movement painful, so it’s a vicious cycle,” she says. “The same can be true for dogs.”

The mind-body connection may also help explain the difference between humans and dogs and the longevity of working dogs, says Otto, because dogs don’t necessarily worry and experience the same kind of stress as a result of a disaster.

“These dogs have an amazing relationship with their partners,” says Otto. “They have a purpose and a job and the mental stimulation of training. I guess that makes a difference too.

Cynthia Otto is director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and a professor of working dog science and sports medicine in the Department of Clinical Sciences and Advanced Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Otto’s co-authors were Elizabeth Hare and Kathleen M. Kelsey of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and John P. Buchweitz and Scott D. Fitzgerald of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University.

Grants from the AKC Canine Health Foundation supported the work.

Bette C. Alvarado